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Friday, August 4, 2017

Super-intelligence and eternal life a wishful future for the elite

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The rapid development of so-called NBIC technologies – nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science – are giving rise to possibilities that have long been the domain of science fiction. Disease, ageing and even death are all human realities that these technologies seek to end.

They may enable us to enjoy greater “morphological freedom” – we could take on new forms through prosthetics or genetic engineering. Or advance our cognitive capacities. We could use brain-computer interfaces to link us to advanced artificial intelligence (AI).

Nanobots could roam our bloodstream to monitor our health and enhance our emotional propensities for joy, love or other emotions. Advances in one area often raise new possibilities in others, and this “convergence” may bring about radical changes to our world in the near-future.

“Transhumanism” is the idea that humans should transcend their current natural state and limitations through the use of technology – that we should embrace self-directed human evolution. If the history of technological progress can be seen as humankind’s attempt to tame nature to better serve its needs, transhumanism is the logical continuation: the revision of humankind’s nature to better serve its fantasies.

As David Pearce, a leading proponent of transhumanism and co-founder of Humanity+, says:

If we want to live in paradise, we will have to engineer it ourselves. If we want eternal life, then we’ll need to rewrite our bug-ridden genetic code and become god-like … only hi-tech solutions can ever eradicate suffering from the world. Compassion alone is not enough.

But there is a darker side to the naive faith that Pearce and other proponents have in transhumanism – one that is decidedly dystopian.

There is unlikely to be a clear moment when we emerge as transhuman. Rather technologies will become more intrusive and integrate seamlessly with the human body. Technology has long been thought of as an extension of the self. Many aspects of our social world, not least our financial systems, are already largely machine-based. There is much to learn from these evolving human/machine hybrid systems.

Yet the often Utopian language and expectations that surround and shape our understanding of these developments have been under-interrogated. The profound changes that lie ahead are often talked about in abstract ways, because evolutionary “advancements” are deemed so radical that they ignore the reality of current social conditions.

In this way, transhumanism becomes a kind of “techno-anthropocentrism”, in which transhumanists often underestimate the complexity of our relationship with technology. They see it as a controllable, malleable tool that, with the correct logic and scientific rigour, can be turned to any end. In fact, just as technological developments are dependent on and reflective of the environment in which they arise, they in turn feed back into the culture and create new dynamics – often imperceptibly.

Situating transhumanism, then, within the broader social, cultural, political, and economic contexts within which it emerges is vital to understanding how ethical it is.
Competitive environments

Max More and Natasha Vita-More, in their edited volume The Transhumanist Reader, claim the need in transhumanism “for inclusivity, plurality and continuous questioning of our knowledge”.

Yet these three principles are incompatible with developing transformative technologies within the prevailing system from which they are currently emerging: advanced capitalism. Perpetual doper or evolutionary defunct? Shutterstock

One problem is that a highly competitive social environment doesn’t lend itself to diverse ways of being. Instead it demands increasingly efficient behaviour. Take students, for example. If some have access to pills that allow them to achieve better results, can other students afford not to follow? This is already a quandary. Increasing numbers of students reportedly pop performance-enhancing pills. And if pills become more powerful, or if the enhancements involve genetic engineering or intrusive nanotechnology that offer even stronger competitive advantages, what then? Rejecting an advanced technological orthodoxy could potentially render someone socially and economically moribund (perhaps evolutionarily so), while everyone with access is effectively forced to participate to keep up.

Going beyond everyday limits is suggestive of some kind of liberation. However, here it is an imprisoning compulsion to act a certain way. We literally have to transcend in order to conform (and survive). The more extreme the transcendence, the more profound the decision to conform and the imperative to do so.

The systemic forces cajoling the individual into being “upgraded” to remain competitive also play out on a geo-political level. One area where technology R&D has the greatest transhumanist potential is defence. DARPA (the US defence department responsible for developing military technologies), which is attempting to create “metabolically dominant soldiers”, is a clear example of how vested interests of a particular social system could determine the development of radically powerful transformative technologies that have destructive rather than Utopian applications.Designing super-soldiers. Shutterstock

The rush to develop super-intelligent AI by globally competitive and mutually distrustful nation states could also become an arms race. In Radical Evolution, novelist Verner Vinge describes a scenario in which superhuman intelligence is the “ultimate weapon”. Ideally, mankind would proceed with the utmost care in developing such a powerful and transformative innovation.

There is quite rightly a huge amount of trepidation around the creation of super-intelligence and the emergence of “the singularity” – the idea that once AI reaches a certain level it will rapidly redesign itself, leading to an explosion of intelligence that will quickly surpass that of humans (something that will happen by 2029 according to futurist Ray Kurzweil). If the world takes the shape of whatever the most powerful AI is programmed (or reprograms itself) to desire, it even opens the possibility of evolution taking a turn for the entirely banal – could an AI destroy humankind from a desire to produce the most paperclips for example?

It’s also difficult to conceive of any aspect of humanity that could not be “improved” by being made more efficient at satisfying the demands of a competitive system. It is the system, then, that determines humanity’s evolution – without taking any view on what humans are or what they should be. One of the ways in which advanced capitalism proves extremely dynamic is in its ideology of moral and metaphysical neutrality. As philosopher Michael Sandel says: markets don’t wag fingers. In advanced capitalism, maximising one’s spending power maximises one’s ability to flourish – hence shopping could be said to be a primary moral imperative of the individual.

Philosopher Bob Doede rightly suggests it is this banal logic of the market that will dominate:

If biotech has rendered human nature entirely revisable, then it has no grain to direct or constrain our designs on it. And so whose designs will our successor post-human artefacts likely bear? I have little doubt that in our vastly consumerist, media-saturated capitalist economy, market forces will have their way. So – the commercial imperative would be the true architect of the future human. System-led evolution. Shutterstock

Whether the evolutionary process is determined by a super-intelligent AI or advanced capitalism, we may be compelled to conform to a perpetual transcendence that only makes us more efficient at activities demanded by the most powerful system. The end point is predictably an entirely nonhuman – though very efficient – technological entity derived from humanity that doesn’t necessarily serve a purpose that a modern-day human would value in any way. The ability to serve the system effectively will be the driving force. This is also true of natural evolution – technology is not a simple tool that allows us to engineer ourselves out of this conundrum. But transhumanism could amplify the speed and least desirable aspects of the process.
Credit to theconversation.com

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